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David Bouchier: Simple Gifts

Only ten shopping days until Christmas, and panic has set. Not only do we have the impossible task of choosing gifts for others, but we have to face that most dreaded and unanswerable question: "What do you want for Christmas?"

Children have no problem with this. They have lists of wants readymade. But the older you get and the more stuff you accumulate the harder it is to know what more you want. Maybe you could use some new socks, or a book, or a CD. But what you really want - that's a huge, terrifying, existential question, and most of us don't like to think about it.

E.B.White, a fine writer, has a short story called "The Second Tree from the Corner," in which he seems to answer the question like this: we do know what we want, of course we do, and it is so inexpressible, so unfathomable, that we can never quite see it clearly, let alone say it in words or get it gift-wrapped from Amazon. This seems to me very true, and explains why we have to invent things to want that then turn out to be not what we want at all.

What do I want? Well, if I could write like E.B.White, for example, that would be a gift indeed. I want to be smarter, younger, braver, and taller. Any or all of these would be a great gift, but they don't appear in the glossy catalogs and they are still only shadows of something else that I don't have a name for. Would all these gifts combined make me happy, or would I still long for that something else? Was E.B. White happy, as one of the most celebrated writers of his time? Would he have been made happier by a novelty tie, or a travel alarm clock?

It is an insoluble problem. If we don't know what we want ourselves, how can we possibly guess what other people want, even those nearest and dearest to us? The fashion in gifts this year seems to be for things that are extravagant and completely useless. Antique pocket watches, vintage radios and even old typewriters are popular, and there also seems to be a vogue for gifts that are personalized with your name, like golf clubs or beer tankards. This has the unfortunate effect of eliminating the main value of a gift, which is that you can pass it along to somebody else next year.

The proverbial wisdom says that it is better to give than to receive. In ancient times, and in all cultures, gifts were offered to the gods. The gods didn't need gifts, and couldn't use them, but that was beside the point. At the dawn of history, as now, gifts were intended to benefit the giver not the receiver. It feels good to give a gift, whereas it's often embarrassing to receive one.

There is only one win-win situation, and that is the charitable gift which, as it were, bounces off the recipient on to someone who needs it more. One year my wife gave me a fine flock of ducklings destined to help a village in Africa. I value my ducklings, and keep a photograph of them, although I've never met them personally. I hope they're having a good time over there in Rwanda and I hope they are helping the village in some way, perhaps by being so decorative. If such a small thing as a flock of ducklings can make me feel good, maybe this year I'll send them a hippopotamus.

Copyright: David Bouchier.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.